Long before there was a Wynwood Art District or an Art Basel in Miami Beach, there were Paul and Estelle Berg.
For decades in South Florida, the husband-and-wife advertising team was synonymous with art collecting, before bright wall murals and museums began dotting Miami-Dade’s landscape. Their love of art, whether contemporary or African or folk, helped inspire young artists and collectors.
But Paul and Estelle Berg’s art collecting didn’t just help South Florida’s art scene bloom. It was the plot of their own love story.
From the first pottery they bought on their honeymoon to the hundreds of pieces that eventually filled their home, their love of art became one of their life’s central pursuits, Paul Berg said.
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“It made our life really wonderful because we were doing it together.”
On Tuesday, June 27, Estelle Berg died in Miami at 76 from cancer, her husband said.
Estelle and Paul became some of South Florida’s first and most influential art collectors when they began in the 1960s, said Bonnie Clearwater, director of Nova Southeastern University’s Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale. The works they collected made their way into museum exhibits through the area, and their passion for the arts helped grow interest.
“They were the heart of the South Florida art scene,” Clearwater said. “They were here at the beginning of most of the contemporary spaces around here, long before it was fashionable. It’s because of that dedication and love and support that there is a scene.”
Estelle Chevelier was born in the Bronx, New York City, on Nov. 8, 1940, but moved with her family to Miami halfway through high school. She studied at the University of Miami, and graduated magna cum laude in 1961.
Shortly after she finished college, a friend and fellow classmate asked if Estelle would consider going on a blind date with her brother Paul. But Estelle, who was about to pursue a master’s degree in literature at Emory University, wasn’t interested, Paul Berg recalled.
“She didn’t want to go on blind dates,” he said. Neither did he. But in their first meeting, the young graphic designer was captivated. The following year, they were married.
At first, their knowledge of art was lopsided: Paul had been trained as an artist and painted abstract works before going into graphic design. Estelle, on the other hand, had studied English literature, focusing on Victorian novels.
“She knew nothing about art when we began but, Jesus, did she learn fast,” Paul Berg said. “She had a great eye, a wonderful eye.”
They bought their first art pieces on their honeymoon in New York City, walking down Madison Avenue and spotting a gallery of Picasso ceramics.
“We didn’t have any money then,” Paul Berg said. But when they walked in and saw two jugs with Picasso’s signature faces, “we were astounded, they were so incredible.”
“We can’t afford this,” he remembered Estelle saying. “I said, ‘Hell with it.’ ”
They returned to Miami with both jugs and another pre-Columbian figure, which they kept ever since.
“I will never sell them,” Berg said. “They were pieces we treasured.”
They were some of the first in South Florida to make a habit of their taste in art. In the early 1960s, only a handful of art collectors were based in the area, said Clearwater, the museum director.
“It certainly wasn’t like now,” she said. “There wasn’t a scene of artists living here.”
The Bergs also didn’t necessarily think of their purchases as collecting early on, Estelle told the Miami Herald in 1994. “We bought stuff we wanted,” she said at the time.
They bought a few more pieces in the first years after their marriage, while Estelle taught at the University of Miami and a few local high schools. Paul worked as a graphic designer and in 1964, started his own advertising and marketing company, Creative Directors, Inc. A few years in, he convinced Estelle to join as a copywriter.
As their business flourished, so did their love of collecting more pieces. After 10 years, “we were passionate collectors,” Paul Berg said.
But unlike other collectors, the Bergs specifically sought out young, emerging artists — at first because it was what they could afford, Paul Berg said. But later they found pieces they wanted to hold onto, even if it meant finding a warehouse to house their growing collection.
“We weren’t worried about [the art] gaining value and auctioning them off,” Paul Berg said. “We were buying them because they were something we wanted to live with.”
The Bergs also made the time to visit exhibitions and talk to artists and collectors to encourage their interests.
“They came to everything,” Clearwater said. They were adamant about making art accessible, she added. They showed “it was possible for anyone to become an arts patron, an arts lover, a collector.”
As the Bergs’ collection grew, so did Miami’s art scene. Artists from Cuba arrived after the revolution, and several local museums, including the Perez Art Museum Miami and the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, opened in the 1980s and ‘90s. By the time Art Basel moved stateside to Miami Beach in the early 2000s, the couple was thrilled, Paul Berg said.
“Miami is now a major league art city,” he added. “We watched this whole thing happening.”
It wasn’t just in Miami that the Bergs’ reputation as collectors and art advocates was known. By the time Clearwater moved from Los Angeles to Miami in 1990, collectors actively pushed her to reach out to the Bergs. “You simply must meet Paul and Estelle,” she said they would tell her.
The couple did disagree occasionally about the pieces they wanted to add to their collection as it grew. In their 1994 Herald interview, Estelle Berg described herself as “the reasonable one”" when it came to new pieces, while her husband “is more daring.”
When asked if they fought, they both responded, “Are you kidding?”
But collecting art brought them much closer than any friction it might have caused, Paul Berg said. “It became a powerful thing in our lives,” he said. “Our lives evolved into the art.”
In their later years, when Estelle began suffering from a neuromuscular condition, they began spending their summers in Providence, Rhode Island, to take advantage of the slightly cooler weather. She flourished there, too, her husband said, delving into the city’s rich art community and the Rhode Island School of Design’s museum nearby.
In October 2016, Estelle’s cancer returned. But even in her last years, she was still thinking about art — and how to get others interested, Clearwater said.
“She came up with the idea of a South Florida art coast, the idea that the art scene now runs from Miami to Fort Lauderdale to Palm Beach,” she said. Museums in the area were already picking up the phrase when Estelle died last week, Clearwater said.
In addition to her husband, Estelle Berg is survived by son Andrew, daughter Karen and stepson Joseph, as well as six grandchildren. Funeral services were held Friday, and memorial contributions may be sent to the Miami Cancer Institute at Baptist Health South Florida.